We’re all tourists. Not all the time. However, most of us have several moments in life where we become the tourist. It may be in a faraway country and culture that makes you dizzy with exotic sights, sounds and smells. Or, it may be somewhere close to home but, unfamiliar nonetheless.
I’ve certainly been a tourist. I’ve shuffled down the hot, dusty pavement of Khao San Road, Bangkok, in my fisherman pants, wristbands, and Chang Beer Singlet. I’ve stood in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa pretending to hold it up with my hands as someone snapped a picture. I’ve rushed through the crowds and onto the Staten Island Ferry to get a seat on the statue side before taking selfies of my giant head and Lady Liberty in the background. I’ve sat on the grass outside the Colosseum on a Roman Summer night as I sipped red wine and gazed up at the giant arches illuminated in warm light. And, I’ve driven a red convertible Mustang from LA to Phoenix as I blasted ‘The Eagles – Take it Easy’ through the stereo with the Sonoran Desert wind in my hair.
All of these were incredible experiences. However, none of them are really taking the ‘Road Less Travelled’ as the title of this blog encourages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting these experiences and I would encourage anyone who can, to do the same. However, these experiences are different to other travel experiences you have.
There’s a moment, or perhaps a moment is too sudden, it’s more gradual but; there is a transition you go through when you cross the line from tourist to resident when living abroad. Times when daily life takes over and you begin to be a part of the culture rather than a spectator. You participate in the foreign medley, dance in the chaos, sing in the thrum of exotic sound. You are no longer seperate, you’re one with the new land and its people and culture. No longer do you wander the streets, camera in hand visiting monuments and attractions. Instead, you crawl into a motorbike sidecar taxi with your baby and bounce around the local streets on the way to the market to buy veggies for dinner.
When you live daily life in another culture you start to develop a deeper understanding of how people live. Your mind expands as experiences illuminate dark and musty neural pathways never trodden. As your awareness changes, you realise with infinite possibilities that your way of living is one among thousands and what you ‘know’ to ‘be’ is simply a cultural filter; designed, built and reinforced by your environment. When you participate in a new country, you see and experience simple yet extraordinary things. These small things make you laugh and smile and remind you that you’re living in a culture that’s very different to your own. This is indeed what I’ve experienced so far after living in Manila, Philippines for 3 months now.
Whilst I’m gaining a deeper understanding of how life works here, I will never be the same as a local. Simply the colour of my skin means that people will always see me as a ‘Kano’ – American, even though I’m Australian! This is a shame in a way. People are overprotective, and treat you differently. They recommend getting taxis when a motorbike or short walk would be more enjoyable or, they warn you of the ‘dangers’ which, do exist but, there’s probably a middle ground to what the locals feel is dangerous for foreigners vs the reality. I am learning more Tagalog (Filipino) language, however, I still feel as though I have no idea what’s going on most of the time.
However, some days, I have small yet significant experiences that make me smile. Of course, there’s the daily bombardment of street scenes. Colours and people blending with concrete slums. Kids play in improvised laneways as palm trees sprout erratically, between concrete, motorbikes and roosters. The humid sun hangs low in the sky on summer afternoons creating a surreal orange haze. Rusty corrugated tin roofs lay sprawled over shanty houses before being suddenly interrupted by volcanic mountains that surround Manila.
All this is foreign to me but, what I’m talking about here is the small things. The funny things that take you beyond scenery and into the world of the every day.
I bought a lightbulb the other day. A simple thing. I stood looking for what I needed as a skinny young attendant watched me intently. Every isle in supermarkets here has attendants and often there’s more staff than customers! I picked up my lightbulb and went to walk away before the small boy called out ‘Sir…’ I stopped and turned confused and he said ‘I’ll test it…’ I didn’t quite understand but he took the globe out of my hand, unboxed it and screwed it into a ‘test socket’ to turn it on and make sure it worked. The same thing happened when I bought a kettle from the supermarket. These are the most sophisticated purchases I’ve made so far. I can only imagine what the process will be when it comes time to buy a TV or a washing machine. This is a really small example. But it made me laugh and smile.
It seems that everyone here has a job. At the supermarket, there is an attendant who weighs your produce for you. Then, the cashier who scans everything and takes the money, then there’s the packing boys who bag all of your items and beautifully tie the plastic bags. Just when you think it’s all over, there’s the security at the exit who (for a reason unknown) checks your receipt, counts the bags in the trolley, circles the receipt and stamps it… I’m also not generalising by referring to certain roles as boys/girls, that’s literally how they hire here. There’s no equal opportunity movement, and employers are very specific about age, sex and even height when hiring!
I remember when Jen (my Filipina wife) first came to Australia, she was shocked that we had self-checkout. Now I understand why! When she arrived, we moved into a new house. So, we went to Kmart and bought a lot of things we needed from a microwave to furniture and more. I wheeled the trolley up to the counter, I paid and we left. Jen was confused. It was all too easy. We had just bought hundreds of dollars worth of items and just paid and walked out! Like me now, it was the little things that got her in Australia.
I went and got my Philippines drivers licence the other week. This is another experience that you wouldn’t have as a tourist. Well, it was an ordeal but, I guess dealing with any government department usually is. What was interesting is that there are several ‘fixers’ who swarm around the ‘Land Transport Office (LTO)’ looking for people in a hurry who would rather pay an inflated fee to have them do everything for them, rather than wait (for hours) to get their licence or registration processed.
Like everything here, there are signs saying ‘Say No to Fixers’ but, no one actually stops them or enforces the law. I didn’t use a fixer, I had a local friend with me. Thank God I did because otherwise I would have no idea what to do. I had planned to write a blog about ‘How to Get Your Philippines Licence’ with tips for expats, but I simply don’t understand the process enough myself. My advice would be… Take a local with you and plan a WHOLE DAY!
First, we went to one guy who filled in some form, then we went to some other ‘official’ sitting at a plastic table under a palm tree who told me I needed a ‘medical’. So I then went to a small room with ‘medical people’ who basically weighed me, tested my eyesight and asked me if I was healthy, I said ‘yes’. We then queued at several other windows where paperwork, money and receipts were exchanged. I then had to wait so, we went to a wooden hut where they served ‘shomai’ (dim sims) and noodles. Six hours later, I was out of there with a licence. The LTO was a nightmare, but something I look back on now and smile as an authentic cultural experience that teaches me more and more about the way of life here.
I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures. I’ve always tried, as a tourist, to immerse myself and understand more about how other people live. Now, I’m living in another culture and realising that this provides an incredible opportunity to understand a culture and place. I realise now that enriched travel is about a blend of the intense, everyday cultural experiences with the would-be mundane. It’s about the small things, the things that you don’t expect, the things that make you smile and realise that the earth is an incredible and diverse planet.